Poetry’s Exponential Growth Model

The notion that writing and performing “poetry” is the easiest way to satisfy the American itch for 15 minutes of fame has spilled out of our campuses and into the wider culture. You can’t pick up a violin or oboe for the first time on Monday morning and expect to play at Lincoln Center that weekend, but you can write your first poem in May and appear at an open mike in June waving a “chapbook” for sale. The new math of poetry is driven not by reader demand for great or even good poetry but by the demand of myriads of aspiring poets to experience the thrill of “publication.”

Many have been buzzing lately about the changes in ‘how we read’ and the future of publishing, especially with the recent gathering for the National Book Critics Circle Awards and their panel on “The Next Decade in Book Culture.” In The Chronicle Review last month,  David Alpaugh wrote about the “new math of poetry” in the context of an exploding number of literary journals that accept and, ultimately, publish the form. From everything to chapbooks, anthologies, and web only journals, Alpaugh seems critical and a bit daunted by the sheer volume of published work that has exploded in the past 50 years:

If journals merely continue to grow at the current rate, there will be more than 35,000 of them by 2100, and approximately 86 million poems will be published in the 21st century!

However, there seems less of an uproar in the domain of sideline journalism via blogging, or user generated media as you see on Youtube or Myspace, and also less of a refusal to admit that these perhaps less sacred forms have attained some legitimacy and degree of professionalism. But with poetry, there arises a specific elitist acrobatics about the worth and the right of many of these new poets to see their work in print. Perhaps this is because poetry is not read as widely as novels, newspapers, non-fiction books and other forms of published material on a daily basis. As Alpaugh notes, poetry is often validated critically over a longer period of time, and with this often posthumous gap in evaluation the volume of poetic work produced today becomes the burden of critics and readers in the years to come. I can’t see how this is such a terrifying prospect, as long as people continue to read something and particularly poetry, which seems suited to the attention economy we now face as readers and consumers of culture.